Who Are Na Kupuna?

Like the rest of us, Hawaiian mature, age and die. And there the similarity ends.

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Fireman and taro-farmer Kyle Nakanelua is nowhere near old enough to be called kupuna, but I’d heard him speak about the three levels of males in Hawaiian culture — ‘opio (youngsters), makua (parent generation, the backbone or kua of the family), and kupuna. I want to know the difference between the latter two categories, and how a man knows when he has achieved kupuna-hood.

He tells me not to expect any automatic honors when my hair turns white. It’s not a matter of ‘quantity,’” he insists — number of years, number of grandchildren. “You got to qualify.

“For us, ku means ‘standing’ and puna is a spring. When you are kupuna, you’re the standing spring. Others can take pure water from the spring. You need to earn that honor. You cannot just sit in a bar all your life, then wake up at age sixty-five and say, ‘I’m a kupuna.’”

Hawaiian mind considers the boundary between life and death porous. The role of na kapuna continues in hunch, inspiration, conscience, intuition.

Says Kyle, “You can have twenty grandchildren, but did you serve them? Do they serve you? You took them to the taro patch in their childhood; now thirty years later they are taking care of your taro patch. The things you hold valuable, they value. When you see the young drinking your water and being refreshed by it, then you know you are kupuna.”

He gives aging a muscular challenge — it takes work. “As ‘opio you work toward being makua. As makua you work towards being kupuna, which is an active state. You grow into it.”

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